Online Publication of Corrections and Clarifications May Have Legal Ramifications
Rasmussen, Kristen, News Media and the Law
Alteration of copy could trigger new statute of limitations
Evolution in the news industry and the modern trend of posting content to the Internet have changed many aspects of the information dissemination process, including one that may not come to mind right away: corrections and clarifications.
Yet, the way in which corrections and clarifications are handled in the online context could have legal significance for media organizations sued for defamation based on a corrected or clarified story.
The issue centers on the statute of limitations, which determines how much time a potential plaintiff has to bring a particular cause of action. The rationale underlying the policy is simple: Potential defendants should not have to defend against claims brought years, or even decades, after the allegedly wrongful conduct. The time limit also prevents old cases from clogging the courts and promotes fairness by eliminating threats of future suits.
The statute of limitations for defamation varies by state from one to three years. Courts' strict application of limitations periods - meaning plaintiffs who do not bring their suits within the time period are barred from doing so - is particularly important in cases involving the media because of the chilling effect caused by an indefinite threat of liability.
Here is how the dilemma usually arises: A news story appears in print and is also posted to the publication's website, usually on the same day or the day before. Later that day, the editorial staff is informed of an inaccuracy, and an appropriate correction or clarification is posted to the online version of the story and printed in the next day's edition. This scenario generally does not present statute of limitations problems because the allegedly defamatory story, in both the print and online versions, and the online correction or clarification were published within the same 24-hour news cycle.
The more troublesome situation occurs when the editorial staff is notified of an inaccuracy a significant amount of time after the original publication of the work.
Does adding a correction or clarification to the article in the organization's online archives constitute a republication of that article such that the statute of limitations begins to run anew from the date of the correction, thereby exposing the publisher to an additional period of potential liability for allegedly defamatory statements contained in the earlier published story?
The answer depends on the format in which the correction or clarification is added, said Slade Metcalf, a New York media attorney. If the surrounding copy and context of the article as a whole remain the same as its original publication, the majority of courts will hold that such an addition is not a republication of the work and, thus, its original limitations period still applies, he said.
"If [the editorial staff] merely adds a correction at the end of a publication, the statute [of limitations] has not begun to run again. They haven't altered the meaning of the article itself," Metcalf said. "But if [the editor] is going in and changing the allegedly defamatory statement to make it not defamatory now, you have changed [the article], and the statute will [re] start. …